Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
In some older homes — and in current homes of some people with older sensibilities — you can find a room referred to as a parlor. Usually, it’s not a utilitarian room for one of the mundanities of life, like a restroom or a bedroom, but a place where people (especially guests) can gather to socialize or just chat.
If you’ve had any exposure to the French language, you might correctly guess that at the heart of the word parlor is talking — parler is the French verb meaning “to talk, to speak.” In Old French the word was parleor or parlour, which can be traced back to the Late Latin parabola. As a noun, parleor indicated an auditorium or courtroom, a place where one would expect a lot of talking.
The word took a religious sense, however. In English, the first parlors weren’t found in personal homes but in medieval monasteries, where silence was a virtue if not an outright requirement. Occasionally, though, monks and other monastics needed to converse with one another or with visitors. Parlour became the name for a special room where talking was allowed.
By the 14th century — Chaucer’s time — the concept of a room designated for conversation had sloughed off its religious overtones, and one could find parlors in personal dwellings, especially those of the well-to-do who had the money to build such extra rooms. Over the next several centuries, parlors became a symbol of a level of luxury that allowed its owners to speak from a position of comfort and privilege without risk of having to deal with the real-world repercussions, or even take any action at all. Someone from America, for example, declaring how the hoi polloi of 19th-century Russia ought to organize to overthrow its monarchy might be labeled a parlor bolshevik, though today we might call such a person an armchair bolshevik.
And of course parlors left the home as well to become the place where business is done, from ice cream parlors to funeral parlors.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now